Caño Cristales is no secret – Colombians swarm to it on long weekends (called puentes) when the maximum daily visitor count of 180 isn't always enforced. These holiday weekends are best avoided. Come midweek if you're able to.
There are numerous hotels in the town of La Macarena where all visitors to Caño Cristales stay overnight. These range from comfortable midrange options to fairly basic guesthouses, but as you'll be out in the national park all day, they're all absolutely fine and generally assigned to groups quite randomly. If you want a specific hotel, do be sure to request it.
The town of La Macarena has plenty of simple restaurants and food stands, though most travellers on packages will not have any choice about where they eat. Food here is definitely not a highlight, and in most places you can expect to eat simple meals of grilled meat, rice and patacones (fried plantains). Packed lunches will be prepared by your hotel for you to take into the park each morning.
You cannot visit Caño Cristales on your own – you are obligated to go into the national park with one of the official local guides, even if you do make it to La Macarena under your own steam. Most tours include air transportation to La Macarena, hotels, meals and guide services. You'll normally be in a group of up to 12 people with a couple of local guides and will normally sleep in La Macarena and spend the days inside the national park.
National Park Rules
Access to the PNN Sierra de La Macarena is closely controlled by the park authorities and there are several unusually strict rules that all visitors must follow. Most important of these is that sun cream and mosquito spray cannot be used on the body prior to entry into the park, as the introduction of chemical compounds to the water could pollute the otherwise pristine waters and adversely affect the unique ecosystem that produces the rivers' extraordinary colors. Visitors are also banned from bringing in plastic bottles, from walking in sandals and from wearing shorts. There are checks by park rangers when you enter the park to ensure that these rules are not broken.
What To Bring
As you won't be able to wear sun cream or mosquito repellent, it's important to have a sun hat, long pants and long sleeves to avoid sun burn – bear in mind that shade is almost nonexistent inside the national park. Bring a large water thermos to supply yourself with plenty of water throughout the day, as it's unsafe to drink the river water. Sunglasses and good walking shoes are also advisable, as there is a lot of walking to be done, as well as several sections of scrambling over uneven rocks. As yellow fever is present in this area, it's important to have a vaccination card to present if you're asked for one.
Taxes & Fees
There are several local taxes and entry fees payable on arrival at La Macarena Airport. These include a COP$37,000 town tax, a COP$6000 airport tax and a COP$87,000 park entry tax.